This photo holds the key to all my experiences and relations with colour. It's the kind of picture I would have treasured as a child and stored in my special box in layers of light blue cotton wool. The best colour illustration I've ever come across, thanks to Michael Maggs at Wikimedia Commons. This is a long post. First some personal reflections. Next a snippet of colour history. Some interesting facts about colour naming. Then again my personal musings on what colour memory is and isn't. Ending with a striking rainbow and great links for further reading. Not for the impatient reader.
GREEN is the first colour I have distinct memories of.
The greens of my grandmothers garden: I was small and the garden seemed vast and the green lawn endless with old and young fruit trees in different shades of green. Green dominated the flower beds with heavy headed peonies and rows of berry bushes offered a drier, spicier green. Being small brought me close to this intimate lushness. I could pass just beneath the dense foliage of the lilacs, into a hidden world of dark and earthy green. Unseen from the outside. I could crawl in below the fragrant leaves of the red currants to find wild strawberries in the soft grass never reached by the lawn mover.
Later I climbed trees. Best were the tall birch trees flanking the allé from my grandparent's house to the main road. Two rows of mature, white stemmed birch trees. Each tree differently equipped with branches fit for either sitting or stretching out; I ranked the trees according to how climbable and comfortable they were. I would sit hidden, high up in a tree for hours, reading, behind a green filter of soft leaves. I thought I could smell the green light; in this atmosphere of chlorophyll even the light seemed to have a fragrant quality. Today, whenever I dress in green, I feel intensely well.
My next significant colour experience was with white. The house of my grandparent's was a so called "Sveitser-villa"; a big white painted wooden house with carved details. (Like this). The bedroom I slept in was white - the light lace curtains were white - the bed linen was white. Some mornings the pale northern sunlight would shine in through the carved white veranda and I would wake up to a shimmering white-in-white pattern of my bed.
Again I felt embalmed in colour, the light was white rather than bright. I wish I could paint the memory of being in that white light.
The essence of my memory has been beautifully captured though not by me, but by Ida Lorentzen, an esteemed painter of interiors, light and space.
Her interior to the left is in pastel titled "Interior from Nyfossum". It came to my knowledge after I started writing this. Do look up the links on her website as they will take you to pictures more typical of her work. Photo courtesy of Ida Lorentzen.
Blue is next on my list. Whereas my memories of green and white stem from my first four years, my attaction to blue came later. Obviously from a more verbal stage because my memories of of blue colours are related to words more than feelings. Skye blue, powder blue, angel blue, Lavender blue, Hepatica blue, aquamarine.
Blue words - blueberry blue - these words stir up visions more than emotions. Scenes and objects, but also fragrance. Still, certain sky blue colours conjures up a whole array of emotions and scenes, and I feel a surge of hope, anticipation, or optimism, maybe? It's particularly strong when I see a certain dotted blue sky typical for Renee Magritte; in my mind I call it "angel blue".
White, green, blue - why not red or yellow? These three colours meant something to me long before I recognised colour as a concept. Why do I feel so strongly about them, and why particularly the green and white? It occurs to me that Norway has two dominating seasons; white winter and a very green summer. The sky looks blue (sometimes). Can it be that simple? I have no similar memories of red and yellow, allthough one memory of red shoes comes to mind. But hey, that's shoes! Who doesn't remember red shoes?
Of course, the intensity of these memories can easily be attributed to other sensory experiences from sources like light, smell or temperature. Most of us are sensitive to sound or smell, to such a degree that a certain smell or a piece of music may bring back memories, good and bad. Maybe colour has the same effect? Accordingly, when seeing a certain green I should have this childhood memory popping up? But that is not how it happens. Strangely, it's thinking the word "green", that vividly brings back memories - the light and smell and the whole scene. Merely seeing green colours does not have the same effect. A puzzling observation which entices me to find out more - how we sense colours, see them, use them, remember them and depend on them.
History of colour studies
Colour has intrigued various sciences for different reasons and the study of colour as a phenomenon is far from new. Newton's colour theories "Opticks" 1704, based on the physics of light and prisms, has been an important stepping stone for further studies. One hundred years later Goethe challenged Newton's ideas with his "Theory of Colors" 1810. Colour systems in detail from Newton up until today are well presented on the "Handprint pages"
New and interesting research is constantly added from very different angles. So much that I cannot even begin to cover it, but check the links below. To mention some; biophysics deal with colour vision and wavelength. Studies in neurobiology and psychology look at vision, perception and cognition in relation to colour stimuli and the brain. Colour is a source of interest in philosophy and anthropology as well.
And some linguists, like Paul Kay, study colour because it helps them testing theories like "linguistic relativity". Since I'm already caught up in words, I've chosen to look into the linguistic field of research. Maybe it will shed some light on the interactions between colour and memory. Paul Kay was kind enough to correct the following blue text so it's up to date with the latest research. Thank you P.K.!
Here's a little taste of what I've picked up...
Colour naming - how many names?
We naturally perceive the colours around us from an early age, apparently in much the same way in all cultures (at least in the ones studied). In order to communicate that we not only perceive colours, but also distinguish one from another, we have to be taught to identify colours by the names, or terms, common to our language. How our native language relates to colour varies quite a lot; and it's particularly the number of colours that we put a name to, that varies across languages.
Some may have as few as two terms; one that covers black plus the cool colours including all shades of green and blue, and one term for light plus the warm colours, including red, orange and yellow. Languages with three terms usually retain the black plus cool term. Then the remaining colours are divided into a white or light term and a third warm term that includes red, orange and yellow. Languages with four terms most often divide the black plus cool term into a “black” term (that can include brown or purple or both) and a green-or-blue term. Languages with five terms almost always have terms for black, white, red, yellow and green-or-blue. Most of the languages of the world don’t have separate simple words for green and blue. Six term languages almost invariably have simple words for the colours black, white, red, yellow, green and blue, which are called the Hering opponent colours after the work of the great German physiologist K.E.K. Hering.
Universal focal colours Modern researchers have termed these six colours "universal focal colours". Universal, because all tested language groups seemed to relate to the same "most typical representations" of white, black, red, yellow, green and blue. Even when a language didn't have individual terms for all six colours some tests have shown that the speakers of the language still related to more or less the same representations of the six colours, but some of these results have been disputed.
In languages with still more terms "brown" or "purple" is often added next, later "pink", "orange" and "grey". Apart from "orange", these eleven terms are pure colour names with no inherent meaning pointing to an object that exemplifies the colour. This selection is typical for English and quite a lot of other languages. Apparently Greece, Turkey and Russia have twelve standard terms; splitting the blue region of colour space into a light blue term and a dark blue term. Of course there are lots and lots of other colour names that you and I and the paint shop on the corner will use, but they may be specific to a product, a culture or to each and one of us, and hence not termed "universal".
What is colour memory? Or rather, what is it not?
Memory about colours I still don't understand the nature of my personal "memory about colours". But I know this:
- Thinking about the word green brings up memories; like a garden scene dominated by green where most other colour details are faded.
- The scene is an amalgam of green; not one specific green that I can replicate or pick out from a colour sampler.
- The source of my memory is based on the experience of seeing and sensing and it is a toddlers perception of green.
- The word green triggers a memory from an age when I most likely didn't relate to my surroundings in colour terms yet. Then, why do words have such an impact?
Where in my brain is this memory lodged? It must be filed under vision, sensory and speech. Summing it up, I realise that I'll have to look at other fields of colour research - more towards neuro and psycho - it's too complex for me to grasp just by reasoning. But what I notice is that this memory is more than a coloured image in my brain. It also holds the key to different sensory aspects of the colour - thinking about green brings back the smell of leaves. Just oposite of a smell bringing back a memory. Brought together, this is my idea of green. My essence of green.
Colour memory Memories about colour, like what I share here, has nothing to do with "colour memory" or a physiological capacity to recognise and reproduce a specific colour. If that even exists? We perceive millions of various colour impressions, but we name relatively few. It seems we store colour information for recognition; for survival. But we can't memorise colours like words in a language. Studies tend to show that we are not equipped with a precise and reliable memory for colour; we tend to do rather badly when tested. Compared; an average English speaker has a vocabulary (low range) of about 20-30 000 words which have to be remembered, to be of any use.
However, there seems to be a tendency to remember the focal colours more accurately than other colours, even across speakers of languages with different colour naming systems. From what I have been able to gather there is no colour equivalent to the perfect pitch we know from music.
What about those of us that daily work with colour - are we physiologically better equipped when we seem to 'remember' colours better than average? 'Seem to remember' is the key; we are most likely not better, maybe slightly differnetly wired, but mostly we have aquired certain techniques and skills that help us recall a specific colour. All of us will do better with practice and we are better at remembering a colour scheme than a single hue. Take an interior: red walls, white ceiling, grey floor, blue doors, yellow chairs etc.; it makes up a a whole picture where each colour stands in relation to the others. The colours define each other. This picture can convey a mood; sad, cheerful, sombre or playful - like a piece of music. Designers and artists learn many skills, and will know how to use colour to create or recall and recreate a mood. This part of colour work has for me been one of the most intriguing and fulfilling.
Colour wheel Colour work demands precision. Clearly it's futile to rely on memory. Fortunately there are tools. Colour can be organised according to different colour theories, systems and standards. The colour wheel being the simplest and most commonly known system for organising. Based on a given system, colours can be referenced with numbers and letters and written down like music.
Rainbow colours The spectral phenomenon of the rainbow would seem to be an incentive to name more than two colours, yet some cultures do not. Lucky are the children with a luanguage that has six and more colours; when they observe the rainbow and learn the names, they will already have acquired a reference for seven colours. By further studying the rainbow a child will also perceive that those colours follow one another in a floating way. And when wondering about why this is so, the child will have taken the first step into the marvel and mystery of colour.
Albert Henry Munsell, American painter, the Munsell Color System with atlas (1915).
Sandy Gautam : Musings on cognitive and developmental psychology
Colour matters - lots of links